On Coping with NFP Zealotry

On Coping with NFP Zealotry May 21, 2012

A reader writes me over at the Register, attempting to deal with the spirit of Jansenism as it manifests itself in zeal against the Impure with Insufficient Numbers of Children.

One of the places where Christians habitually tend to drop the ball is in failing to recognize that salvation is by grace  through faith expressing itself in acts of virtue.  Instead, we tend to want to create laws and shibboleths.  It can be anything from “Have you had *enough* kids to *really* qualify as prolife?” to “Do you recycle and support NPR *enough*?  Or are you insufficiently attuned to *real* social justice issues?”  It doesn’t really matter what the law is about, just so long as we are erecting it to keep out the riff raff and pride ourselves on our Purity.

"If your Diocese has a TL Mass, you should go one time (If you haven't).It's ..."

Rod Bennett on his new book ..."
"You, and Tom, and the very host of this blog are all avoiding my question. ..."

Some Reflections on the Crucifixion for ..."
"as I'm fond of saying, the Church and the truths she teaches belong to Christ, ..."

Rod Bennett on his new book ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mark, I dunno how many NFP users/teachers you’ve met face to face. But I’ve yet to meet one such as has been described (perhaps I’ve luckily beat the odds). If I were allowed only one word to describe them, then the easy choice for me would be to pick “joyful”.

    Additionally, NFP use is really rare. The overwhelming majority of Catholics use contraceptives, so we’re talking about a very small population.

    I wonder if there is some sort of mixed nuts effect (that is, a can of mixed nuts) that occurs on the Interwebs, such that the disturbing extremes rise to the top and get noticed.

  • EBS

    Mark, I commented on such a blog just recently for the first time and became quite upset at some responses, and in particular one ladies response targeted back at me. Btw, I use NFP, I have 2 girls and pregnant with baby number 3.
    My comment on this particular blog was in relation to a friend of mine who comes from a family of 12 and has suffered considerably because in her opinion, not mine, her parents neglected her and her siblings in their pursuit of having lots if children cause the Church says so, and praying/going to Church- in other words neglecting their daily vocations and duties to the children they brought into this world. My story garnered a lot of defensive commentary, even though I clearly stated each time, that I wasn’t advocating or judging large families- I was merely making the point that if you not intend to nuture physically, spiritually and mentally each and every child you have, don’t have those children. I’ve seen examples of how children suffer and hold so much baggage regarding this their whole life. And all it does is turn these children away from having children themselves, let alone lots of children, in the long-run.

    Anyway, I was quite upset at the attitudes, as Bob LeBlanc mentioned, that are prevalent on the Internet that Ive never encounter in real life. Quite bazaar actually, how some fellow Catholics can make Popes of themselves and hold their hands over their ears to real life stories that are not to their liking.

    Great blog, keep it up!

  • beccolina

    I’ve seen that sort of attitude in comments threads online. It’s not something people talk about as readily face-to-face, I think. I recall a conversation at the Crisis magazine site (I think, it has been a while), where some thought using NFP for any reason, except if pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life, was wrong. Things got pretty heated and I ran for cover half-way through. Maybe it’s just me, but threads that go that way leave me so upset that I now try to avoid them. The discussions where someone is asserting that no mass since Vatican II is valid do the same thing to me.

    • EBS

      It’s not just you, I get upset too. It feels like this competition of whose holier than the other. If it’s a competition, leave me out of it- the other person wins any day!
      God will judge each of us for our actions as well as for our INTENTIONS and MOTIVES. Bad intentions can come across as good acts if presented well…no one on this earth is anyone else’s benchmark or judge. We have the Church’s teachings as the benchmark, and our brains and consciences to decide. And God our Guide. Use ’em.

  • Dale Price

    It’s a noxious mindset, and overflows on NFP threads. I remember some lady getting her knickers in a wad about her perception of NFP abuse (“They have only two kids and brand new cars!”) whilst at the same time asserting her non-judgmental nature. She went into near-hysterics when called on it.

    My thought is that there aren’t enough people using NFP for me to get curious, let alone judgmental, about the number of children a practicing couple has.

    When we’re up to, say, 10% of Mass-attending Catholics using it, then I might develop worries about motivations.

    • Spastic Hedgehog

      I don’t think those people realize just how discouraging they are. I’m practicing NFP. I get no support from my OB/GYN (its gotten so bad that I’m looking to transfer to one at the Catholic hospital 25 miles away). I work with a group of people who openly admit that children are burdensome and they’d rather have dogs. Cervical mucous isn’t something one readily speaks of at coffee hour and the few times I’ve braved it on the internet I’ve been informed that I’m a selfish monster for (a) working outside our home and (b) not really wanting 15 children. I feel so utterly alone (my husband notwithstanding) in trying to “do the right thing.” Thank God for the grace he sends because otherwise I’d have jumped ship on this issue long, long ago.

      TL;DR The Catholic circular firing squad on the interwebs actually makes it harder to be a faithful Catholic. Also, the sky is blue.

      • Beadgirl


        You’re not alone, Spastic Hedgehog.

      • KML

        Amen, Hedgehog. It’s hard enough to be faithful without the combox inquisitariot demanding exactly *how* faithful and in what way. From the USCCB page:

        [“Grave and Serious”]
        Paul VI in his encyclical, Humanae vitae (1968), while condemning the use of all contraceptive methods for even grave (gravia) reasons declared licit the recourse to the infertile periods if the spouses have good (just and seria) reasons to postpone even indefinitely another pregnancy. (HV, nos. 16, 10). The language here is similar to Gaudium et Spes no. 10. But first those spouses are commended who, with prudent deliberation and generosity, choose to accept a large family. The spouses are to consider their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the family, and human society. Each of these factors may be taken into account in right order in determining “serious and just reasons.” In other words the spouses are to discern together first, what is God’s plan for their family here and now, then, their own physical and emotional resources for accepting another child, the needs of other family members, and lastly the good of the human society in which they live.

        What’s that? Discernment? But we’re Catholic! We like rules! Just tell us what to do, don’t ask us to think or (gasp!) PRAY about it!

        In seriousness, I don’t know the inner workings of each person’s heart or marriage (thank God). I don’t presume to know what grave and serious reasons they have, or what constitutes a grave and serious reason, and I do believe that there is a deliberate silence from the Church on that issue.

        I will say that if there is perceived sacrifice in having many kids for the glory of the kingdom (and I’m sure there is), I can attest that there is also sacrifice in delaying a very wanted pregnancy for mutually discerned reasons. And it isn’t because my spouse and I don’t take seriously the teachings, or lack courage or faith. I do wish that were more acknowledged and supported in the NFP community.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          What’s that? Discernment? But we’re Catholic! We like rules! Just tell us what to do, don’t ask us to think or (gasp!) PRAY about it!

          Ha! I would argue, though, that it’s not the Catholic part of us that rejects discernment and prefers rules-lawyering, though; it’s the American part of us that wants strict rules. It’s actually pretty normal for the Church to be loose with rules and deal with issues on a case by case basis.

          I’m sure you already knew that and just needed me to be the boring person who takes sarcasm literally.

          • KML

            Ha! Funny, Andy. : ) Very interesting point, and highlights why the Church teachings about sexuality in marriage are so awesome. They are impervious to our regular decision-making ways. I know of no other teaching in the Church that requires such constant, unceasing discernment on a daily (heck, hourly!) basis. In a world where we are used to arriving at a definite yes or no and camping out there, NFP demands that we live with “sometimes,” “maybe,” and “potentially” indefinitely. The world (and I agree, America especially) is highly uncomfortable with that. It’s not surprising that it would attract people, even faithful, well-meaning people, who want to construct rules and condemnations about and around it. That’s just what we do. It’s our comfort zone. How cool is it, though, that the Church asks us to step out of that comfort zone and live that radical “maybe” with the person we have pledged to spend the rest of our life with? Pretty awesome school for saints, that.

      • KML

        Oh, and regarding the OB complaint….

        After I had my second child and the midwife asked about my BC plans post-birth and I told her NFP, she got all concerned and asked if I would *really* be ok with getting pregnant again right away. Considering the effectiveness rate of Billings vs, say, condoms, I *really* wanted to ask her if she asks all her patients that.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        The only thing I got from your post, Spastic Hedgehog, was that you are a woman. My mind hasn’t been blown this much since I watched Blues Clues with my kids and found out that Blue is a girl, too.

        I kid, I kid. I was paying attention to the rest of your post. Blue really is a girl, though.

        • Spastic Hedgehog

          I was recently confronted with the surprise of Blue’s gender myself. I am glad to read that I was not the only one who assumed that Blue was a boy.

          No worries — my gender isn’t generally relevant to the discussion so I guess it’s just never come up. But hey, chicks dig theology too!

  • Ted Seeber

    My wife and I have been practicing NFP in reverse for the past 12 years in hopes of having more children. Hasn’t happened, and now we’re thinking about adoption before our son is too old to enjoy being a brother.

    Sometimes, no matter what you do, God has other plans for your life.

    • Andy, Bad Person


      Seriously, Ted, God bless you. I hope God’s will makes you and your family happy.

    • Dan C

      Good luck and best wishes with that. You are in my prayers.

    • PBF

      Basically same situation here, except that we managed to have two in our early 20s before the fertility machine went kaput (still don’t know why). Tried for a decade to have more, including off and on visits to doctors to see what licit means were available to us. Not mane. As a result, I have a near-compulsion to overshare with people. I fall over myself to tell people that we really wanted a large family and have been waiting for years to be blessed with another child. I shouldn’t feel that I need to tell everyone that, but it’s almost like I can’t help it. And I’m sure there are people who have seen our small family and assumed that’s how we planned it.

  • Sal

    This is interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard, or heard of, anyone giving anybody grief on this subject in the 20 years, + or -, that I’ve been in my community/parish. I guess the general assumption is that everyone is open to children (our average family size is five/six kids) and if you don’t have a large family, there’s probably a good reason that you don’t wish to discuss, b/c it’s private.
    Not everyone has the same physiology. So, we have families with many birth kids, families with both birth kids and international adoption kids, families with one locally adopted kid, and small families, for whatever reason.
    Father does a sermon on the Church’s teaching on contraception a couple of times a year, mostly b/c we have new people coming to the parish all the time. Nothing polemic- just the facts.

    Mark’s take-away point is excellent- there is no group that won’t have someone codifying the correct behavior for everyone else.

    • KML

      “Father does a sermon on the Church’s teaching on contraception a couple of times a year, mostly b/c we have new people coming to the parish all the time. ”

      A church that preaches about teachings on contraception AND is growing. Most interesting. : )

  • Andrew

    Frankly, I’ve encountered NFP-zealotry more than NFP-normalcy. Between the books and NFP couples we’ve encountered, the general attitude is if you don’t live on some farm in rural Pennsylvania with a stay-at-home wife and six home-schooled kids you’re part of the great unwashed. Working wife? Gaaah, modernists! TWO cars? Selfish. Three kids! The loss of their childhood! Inside plumbing!…well, okay, I’m being a bit sarcastic but you get the gist.

    We live in California, both work (have to), three kids in (gasp!) public school. At our old parish we were talking with the parish priest about NFP and such and he became so excited, “Would you consider working in our marriage ministry, we have a hard time, um, finding, um, normal people like you and your wife to discuss NFP.” He readily admitted that to young couples living in expensive areas where woman have (and want) careers, NFP is a hard sell. It shouldn’t HAVE to be but part of the problem is well, those doing the advertising.

  • Even if you don’t plan to be superparents, you’re just going to feed and clothes them, and leave them to their own devices …


    It’d been great to grow up scarless, but nothing beats just getting to grow up! Don’t worry, they’ll hate you at some point even if you’re heroes.

    Be fruitful!!!

    • Donna

      That can sometimes backfire. The fact that my grandmother was the eldest girl of 8 kids explains why my mom was an only child. ” No way will my daughter be stuck with a bunch of annoying little brothers and sisters like I was ! It was like growing up in Grand Central Station – no privacy, no free time , and anything you had was free game for swiping. “

  • Rebecca in ID

    Thank you so much for this article, Mark. Have you read Angela Bonilla’s article about the terminology used in HV? http://www.westernjournalism.com/judge-strikes-down-ndaa-rules-obama-must-obey-constitution/ It is an excellent article. I noticed that many of the comments following your article bring up this phrase “grave reasons”, yet that phrase is a misleading and inaccurate English translation of the original document. It really should be put to rest once and for all. I would like to say too that I converted as a young adult and through conversations with other Catholics had gleaned mistakenly that the teaching of the Church is that use of periodic continence is to be reserved for the very gravest of reasons. I knew married people, one lady whose back had completely gone out, who was seeing priests and in agony about whether postponing a child now might be selfish. So this view, to me, was the Church’s teaching, and I attempted to embrace it in good will. It was only when I was conversing with a Protestant online, who objected to the Church’s teaching on NFP/contraception, that I found myself in the position of defending the Church’s teaching, and in doing so, realized that I did not have a good grasp and could not give good reasons. Then I began really delving into exactly why contraception is wrong, which then led me to understand what the Church’s actual teaching is, especially as articulated in HV and Gaudium et Spes. Once I saw what the teaching is, I couldn’t unsee it; it was as clear as day to me. In my own marriage adventures I had the good fortune of having my children very well spaced through breastfeeding (which I consider to be part of NFP) so my questions about periodic abstinence were on a more theoretical level, but more recently there were other reasons that came up and I was glad not to have the debilitating anxiety that I have seen in others who misunderstand the Church’s true teaching, which is generous and allows much freedom. I am saying these things because I would like to point out that however judgmental people sometimes sound in propounding their views on NFP, it is often likely that the person speaking is not so much a victim of judgmentalism per se as just a victim of a very misguided understanding. And along with that, there can be really awful burdens–a wife feeling as though she must be excited about having many children very closely spaced when in fact she is overwhelmed, or a couple feeling terrible anxiety about whether their reasons are “grave” enough. Their judgment in the comboxes may be a true concern for the souls of others based on what they see as something pretty much equivalent to contraception. Sadly, and ironically, I think many of us did not/do not understand the Church’s teaching because we don’t actually see why, exactly why, contraception is so wrong. I think many of these people (as I did, as a new convert) think that it is wrong because of the intention to avoid a pregnancy, and they do not understand the *vast difference in means* between contraception and periodic abstinence, which makes all the difference between a virtuous action and a grave sin. Anyway, this topic is of great interest to me and I am very grateful to see you speak so clearly on it.

    • Mark Shea

      Thanks. Your link was to the wrong article. Can you provide the correct link?

  • Rebecca in ID